If U.S. President Barack Obama was correct when he declared that his meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro in Panama City last weekend marked the end of the Cold War, we should get ready for a potentially even more momentous historical marker if Iran and the P5+1 powers led by the U.S. reach full agreement on Iran’s nuclear technology and the lifting the sanctions. Such a deal could well signal the end of the colonial era in the Middle East.
Colonialism prevailed for centuries because Western industrialized powers could use their military superiority to impose their will on the weaker nations of the global south. This was particularly humiliating for many Arab and other Middle Eastern societies, where Western powers during the past century have routinely created and manipulated countries, imposed and removed national leaderships, dominated and exploited economies and waged war at will anywhere in the region.
The direct military occupation and economic exploitation from colonialism continue to this day, in forms such as sanctions that devastate national economies, proxy wars, assassinating suspected enemies with drone-fired missiles, and casting United Nations Security Council vetoes against the wishes of indigenous populations.
The historic significance of the continuing Iran negotiations is that they are a rare example of the failure of Western powers to achieve their initial goals in the Middle East through the use of force, sanctions and threats. Instead, the U.S.-led powers have had to adjust their own aims and agree to four important demands that the Iranians have long insisted on: (i) accepting Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities for peaceful purposes; (ii) dropping the threat of regime change by military means; (iii) resolving the nuclear disagreement through diplomatic negotiations rather than violence, threats and sanctions; and (iv) addressing controls on Iran’s nuclear industry simultaneously with the lifting of American, European Union and U.N. economic sanctions.
The Obama administration in 2013 wisely acknowledged that its policies failed and that Iran would not buckle under pressures and threats. It came around to accepting these four points, which, with the election of President Hassan Rouhani in Iran, opened the way to the historic negotiating process that addressed the key issues to both sides.
The U.S.-led powers — goaded and pressured by Israel — had sought for over a decade to shut down Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities, fearing that Tehran would one day have the ability and desire to develop its own atomic weapon. That goal was replaced with tough limits on nuclear enrichment means, levels and amounts, combined with intrusive U.N. inspections to be able to detect any clandestine Iranian bomb-making effort. Iran agreed to these negotiating principles because it received in return what it valued most: the formal international acceptance of its enrichment capabilities and the lifting of sanctions.
The key phrase in achieving this breakthrough to date has been “mutual respect.” It was no surprise that “respect” was also common to the statements of both Obama and Castro last weekend. It is probably as good a single word as we have that describes the opposite of colonial behavior by a strong power that routinely threatens, insults, attacks, occupies, exploits and manhandles weaker societies.
In particular, there are two factors that explain how mutual respect led to fruitful negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. First, the long history of Iranian mistrust of Western powers dates back centuries, even though Iran was never directly colonized by the West. Typical of Iranian and Arab bitter attitudes to the West is the memory of how European interests exploited the region’s resources at will — usually until this precipitated nationalist uprisings in Iran, Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere.
In Iran, the British-India Company had established a monopoly over the tobacco industry during the 19th century, leaving only meager pickings for the local land owners and workers. Similar colonial exploitation by the U.K. took place in the oil sector in the early 20th century, when London gained a monopoly on oil exploration and production, forming the Anglo-Persian Oil Company two years after the 1906 constitutional revolution in Iran that reflected popular aspirations to assert nationalist rights over royal and foreign power.
Nearly half a century later, the Iranian parliament in 1951 nationalized the Iranian oil industry and threw out the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Two years later, the nationalistic Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown in a coup coordinated by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, the British government and the Iranian monarchy. The Iranian public widely saw the return of the Pahlavi dynasty to power and its quarter-century of rule until the 1979 Islamic Revolution as a constant reminder that Washington and London, rather than the Iranian people, called the shots on Iran’s national priorities and policies.
The outrages only continued from there. One example was American and European support for Iraq during its devastating war against Iran between 1980 and 1988, including material support for Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. Equally grating to Iranians were the several instances of European, American and Russian organizations that reneged on or delayed contracts to help develop Iran’s early nuclear power production facilities in recent decades.
Together, these bitter historical experiences forged an Iranian political determination never again to permit foreign powers to treat the country like a colonial plaything.
The second factor that explains how Iran was able to stand up to foreign threats and to force a more even-handed nuclear negotiation was its ability to develop its national economic, technological and military capabilities, and its regional strategic ties, especially with Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. It could withstand the impact of the harsh international sanctions against it, and — unlike Iraq, Syria, Libya and Sudan who had buckled under recent attacks or threats by the U.S. or Israel — Iran had become a formidable geo-strategic actor that caused its foes to think twice about launching war against it.
Negotiations, if they could achieve the desired goals, became a more attractive option. By successfully modifying Western negotiating goals, Iran also managed to achieve the mutual respect that represents a major step toward ending the West’s colonial and imperial behavior against it.
If the negotiations reach a fruitful conclusion by June, Iran will enjoy significantly enhanced regional status as the country that forced the world’s powers to a negotiated settlement that also affirmed the international rule of law on permissible enrichment for peaceful purposes. For the rest of us in the Arab world, this should be a rare lesson in how to develop our own capabilities and self-respect, in order to force others to respect us, on the now slightly less elusive path to the end of colonialism.